Poetry in motion: Charles Perkins Centre

At The University of Sydney’s Camperdown/Darlington Campus, this education and research facility by FJMT and Building Studio is a “poetic” spatial experience.

Approaching the new Charles Perkins Centre at The University of Sydney, I thought that I had this article already formulated: institutional building, university, Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT). What more could there be to see or say that we hadn’t come across before? And even more so given the fact that I work in one such project and am surrounded by other such examples by this esteemed Sydney practice. However, there is nothing I like more than having my preconceptions challenged and this interior by FJMT with Building Studio (architects in association) certainly achieved this. Yes, it is an institutional building and yes, it is in a university, but it goes well beyond the perfunctory housing of a bio-medical research centre and teaching facilities to provide an extremely elegant and, dare I say it, “poetic” spatial experience unlike any of FJMT’s previous work, or for that matter many university interiors.

Described as the “interior organic heart,” the atrium provides a breathtaking moment when you first enter.

Described as the “interior organic heart,” the atrium provides a breathtaking moment when you first enter.

Image: John Gollings

The long ship-like building is located on the periphery of the university’s Camperdown/Darlington Campus and is flanked by green ovals on three sides. The warmth of its sandstone facade acts as a foil to the adjoining Gothic pile of St John’s College, softening the determined geometry of the exterior architecture. For a building that houses such a complex and varied program – a clinic, numerous forms of research laboratories and offices as well as undergraduate teaching spaces – wayfinding and circulation through the sixteen-thousand-square-metre project were of paramount importance. Spatial legibility is achieved through the grand six-storey atrium that carves out a glowing white canyon in the centre of the building. Not only does the atrium visually and physically link the disparate interior spaces, it also provides that classic breathtaking moment when you first look up.

Richard Francis-Jones, the design director at FJMT, describes the atrium as the “interior organic heart” of the project. This is a sophisticated analogy, one drawn between the atria of the beating heart and that of the building, especially when considering that cardiovascular disease is one of the main focuses of the research centre. While we have seen DNA helixes embodied in the designs of other research centres, there is nothing obvious or clumsy in the “biomorphic symbolism” at the Charles Perkins Centre. The complex geometry of the cantilevering balconies wave in and out, accentuated by the arabesque gymnastics of the dancing staircase. The bravura of the staircase and the folding and billowing of the plaster-white balustrades are reminiscent of the dualism of drama and serenity typically found in baroque churches. The primacy of the spatial experience is afforded over any abstract symbolic concerns. Francis-Jones says of the experience, “We wanted the users to arrive with a real sense of excitement … to create an internal space that was inspirational.”

The warm colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a successful balance.

The warm colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a successful balance.

Image: John Gollings

The atrium and the circulation that ribbons around it are at the centre of a straightforward quadripartite division of the long floor plate – a formula repeated on all levels. The short ends of each floor are marked with solid-colour walls behind which are office spaces for the researchers. One of the long sides accommodates informal meeting spaces and hubs, and on the parallel side across the atrium are the research labs. Graded visibility was a key concern for the client and this has been moderated by the use of the atrium balustrades together with a glazed treatment on lab walls. Graphics inspired by cellular patterns and Indigenous Australian motifs were used to break up the glass walls.

The research centre was named in tribute to The University of Sydney’s first Indigenous Australian graduate, Charles Perkins. This acknowledgment is picked up in the intense earth colours that are used within the interior. Lina Francis-Jones, who headed the interior works on the project, says that the colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a very successful balance. The colours “pop” against the white without being garish, providing the warmth in a scheme that otherwise may have run the risk of being too cool in hue.

The project was completed from conception to construction within a two-year timeframe. Part of this impressive feat was the prototyping of many of the joinery modules and custom furnishings. Project architect Matthew Todd highlights that these were not just mock-ups but “full-scale finished prototypes.” This method allowed the client and designers to maintain a close working relationship, ensuring that the demanding timeframe did not result in unexpected surprises or compromises in the design quality.

Many institutional design projects typically start off with lofty ideals but often fail to deliver in terms of the actual day-to-day experience. FJMT and Building Studio have shown an ability to evolve their approach for research and educational facilities. In its beauty and boldness, this sophisticated interior meets the designers’ and clients’ aspirations of representing the noble cause of research in a physical and spatial form.

Products and materials

Walls and ceilings
Knauf plasterboard ceilings. Abet Laminati laminate wall panels to atrium. Wall panelling in auditorium with polyurethane finish in Dulux ‘Vivid White’. General walls in workplace painted Dulux ‘Whisper White’. Feature walls and doors in atrium and workplace painted Dulux ‘Golden Sand’, ‘Golden Koi’, ‘Yellow Mandarin’, ‘Pedrika Desert’, ‘Fluorescent Fire’, ‘Lava Cove,’ ‘Alpine Haze,’ ‘Miles’ and ‘Becker Blue’. Ceramic tiles to amenities from Glennon Tiles and Habitat. Wall fabric and acoustic panels from Woven Image.
Blinds from Hunter Douglas.
Carpet tiles in workplace and interaction zone from Interface. Carpet in auditorium from Cavalier Bremworth. Ceramic tiles in public areas from Artedomus. Laboratory flooring from Tarkett.
Polar lounge from Stylecraft. Chairs in cafe, meeting room and outdoors from Corporate Culture. Bespoke furniture from Bindi Furniture. Workstation chairs from Zenith Interiors. Task chairs from Workarena. Lab stools and tables from TCW. Other furniture from Chairbizz and Yazz. Upholstery by Kvadrat Maharam. Ottomans from Interstudio
Bulletin board from Forbo. Laminate in laboratories, amenities and reception from Laminex. Laminate in laboratories from Wilsonart. Joinery furniture and upholstery from Instyle Contract Textiles, Macquarie Textile Solutions and Warwick Fabrics.


Design practice
Project Team
Richard Francis-Jones, Jeff Morehen, Matthew Todd, Andrew Chung, Jason Chung, Lina Francis-Jones, Michelle Ho, Ian Hollen, Hallum Jennings, Lillian Lau, Eric Lee, Simon Lee, Jesse Lockhart-Krause, Patrick Maitland, Sean Petett, Susanne Pollmann, Diana Scalici, Heidi Sinclair, Noel Yaxley, Matthew Todd, Richard Tripolone, Chris Roberts-Brewer, Andrew Langford, Gerard Outram, Troy Uleman, Elizabeth Carolan, Talia Keyes, Kate Stanistreet, Mona Chao, Ross Bowman, Joe McLoughlin, Rob Barron, Louis Faucheux, Vinh Vu, Emily Mauffrey, Monica Devcic, Kevin Reilly
Design practice
Building Studio
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Acoustics Acoustic Logic
Audiovisual WSP Group, Fredon
Civil and structural engineer Robert Bird Group
Facade engineer Surface Design
Graphic design Minale Tattersfield Australia
Hydraulics Harris Page, Axis Services Group, ASquared Consulting
Lighting and electrical engineers Steensen Varming
Managing contractor Brookfield Multiplex
Mechanical engineer Steensen Varming, Allstaff Airconditioning
Planner Urbis
Security Fredon, SMP Security
Site Details
Location Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 22 months
Construction 18 months
Category Interiors
Type Universities / colleges



Published online: 8 Jul 2015
Words: Sing d'Arcy
Images: John Gollings


Artichoke, March 2015

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